A Movie Log

A blog formerly known as Bookishness

By Charles Matthews

Thursday, September 1, 2016

The Heiress (William Wyler, 1949)

With 12 Oscar nominations and three wins for directing, William Wyler holds a firm place in the history of American movies. But not without some grumbling on the part of auteur critics like Andrew Sarris, who observed, "Wyler's career is a cipher as far as personal direction is concerned." His movies were invariably polished and professionally made, but if what you're looking for is some hint of personality behind the camera, the kind that Hitchcock or Hawks or Ford displayed no matter what the subject matter of the film, then Wyler is an enigma. His most personal film, The Best Years of Our Lives (1946), grew out of his wartime experiences, but they are subsumed in the stories he has to tell and not revealed with any assertively personal point of view on them. And anyone who can trace a Wylerian personality latent in movies as varied as Mrs. Miniver (1942), Roman Holiday (1953), Ben-Hur (1959), and Funny Girl (1968) has a subtler analytical mind than mine. What they have in common is that they are well made, the work of a fine craftsman if not an artist. The other thing they have in common is that they won Oscars for their stars: Greer Garson, Audrey Hepburn, Charlton Heston, and Barbra Streisand, respectively. The Heiress, too, won an Oscar for its star, Olivia de Havilland, suggesting that in Wyler we have a director whose virtue lay not in his personal vision but in his skill at packaging, at arranging a showcase not just for performers -- he also directed Oscar-winning performances by Bette Davis in Jezebel (1938) and by Fredric March and Harold Russell in The Best Years of Our Lives -- but also for production designers, costume designers, composers, and cinematographers: Oscars for The Heiress went to John Meehan, Harry Horner, and Emile Kuri for art direction and set decoration, to Edith Head and Gile Steele for costumes, and to Aaron Copland for the score, and Leo Tover was nominated for his cinematography. Wyler lost the directing Oscar to Joseph L. Mankiewicz for A Letter to Three Wives, but is there any doubt that The Heiress would have been a lesser film than it is without Wyler's guidance? All of this is a long-winded way to say that although I honor, and in many ways prefer, the personal vision that shines through in the works of directors like Hitchcock, Hawks, Ford, et al., there is room in my pantheon for the skilled if impersonal professional. As for The Heiress itself, it's a satisfying film with two great performances (de Havilland's Catherine and Ralph Richardson's Dr. Sloper), one hugely entertaining one (Miriam Hopkins's Lavinia Penniman), and one sad miscasting: Montgomery Clift's Morris Townsend. It's a hard role to put across: Morris has to be plausible enough to persuade not only Catherine but also the somewhat more worldly Lavinia that he is genuinely in love with Catherine and not just her money, but he also needs to give the audience a whiff of the cad. Clift's Morris is too callow, too grinningly eager. There is no ambiguity in the performance. If we like Morris too much, we risk seeing Dr. Sloper more as an over-stern paterfamilias and less as the cruelly self-absorbed man he is. Richardson's fine performance goes a long way to righting this imbalance, but he's fighting Clift's sex appeal all the way.